An exhilarating conclusion to the U.S. Open Women’s Handicap at Houston Polo Club (Houston, Texas) on Sunday, November 17, featured an intriguing match-up between the two undefeated teams remaining in the single elimination tournament. The outcome came down to the final chukker, with BCI/Sullivan Group (Cara Kennedy, Joanie Jackson, Marissa Wells, Athena Malin) surviving a late comeback from Bearsden (Carol Farnsworth, Grace Parker, Audry Persano, Tiamo Hudspeth) to capture the victory 5-3.
Athena Malin prepares to make her shot.
“We really clicked as a team. Each one of us knew where to go during a play and kept our cool throughout the tournament. We had a lot of fun and never let ourselves get down if a play didn’t go our way.” – Cara Kennedy
The opening half proved to be a defensive battle as BCI/Sullivan Group and Bearsden fought in a tightly marked, end-to-end style of play. After Marissa Wells opened the scoring for BCI/Sullivan Group on a Penalty 2 conversion, Bearsden responded with constant pressure to heavily outshoot BCI/Sullivan Group 6-0 in the first chukker. Despite the large shot advantage, Bearsden struggled to convert, with Audry Persano scoring the lone goal for Bearsden in the first to leave the teams tied 1-all. A scoreless second chukker for both teams was not due to a lack of chances. BCI/Sullivan Group regained some momentum to hold the possession advantage, but were unable to find the scoreboard, ending the first half deadlocked 1-all.
Bearsden’s Audry Persano on the ball with BCI-Sullivan Group’s Marissa Wells in pursuit.
The pace of the game changed after halftime when both BCI/Sullivan Group and Bearsden increased the pressure which ultimately led to foul trouble for the remainder of the game. With just one combined field goal in the first half, the BCI/Sullivan Group offense turned to the penalty line where Wells scored her second penalty goal to give her team the narrow 2-1 lead. Bearsden received two penalty attempts of their own, but were unable to convert either opportunity, leaving the door open for BCI/Sullivan Group to extend their lead. Consecutive field goals from Malin and Wells gave BCI/Sullivan Group a commanding three-goal lead with just one chukker between them and the U.S. Open Women’s Handicap title. Missing a Penalty 3 and Penalty 4 attempt to begin the fourth chukker, Bearsden refused to quit, bringing the score within one after field goals from Persano and Farnsworth. The suspense and excitement building around the field, BCI/Sullivan secured the victory in the final minute on Malin’s second goal of the game, cementing BCI/Sullivan Group’s 5-3 victory and U.S. Open Women’s Handicap Champion honors.
“We knew going into the final that Bearsden was a strong four-man team because they play together so often year-round,” Marissa Wells said. “We tried to stick to man-to-man coverage and be quick. We really wanted to stretch the field and have them come to us.”
The youngest team in the tournament, BCI/Sullivan Group’s team members have connections that go back their college and high school teams. “I have been playing with Joanie [Jackson] for a couple years now and we are good friends,” Wells said. “When I was at Texas A&M University I coached her and gave her polo lessons. Cara [Kennedy] and Joanie are close and have previously played interscholastic polo together. We decided to add Athena Malin to the team and we gelled really well.”
Most Valuable Player was awarded to Marissa Wells, presented by USPA Governor-at-Large Steve Armour and Anne Carl.
Most Valuable Player was awarded to 23-year-old Marissa Wells (the eldest player on BCI-Sullivan Group) who successfully captained the team for a three-game winning streak.
Best Playing Pony Amateur was awarded to Luna, ridden by Cara Kennedy. Presented by Leslie Ohayon with Sacred Leaf Wellness and pictured with Colleen Williams and Chad Bowman.
Best Playing Pony honors were divided into three specific categories and grey polo ponies stole the show. Cara Kennedy’s Luna, a 14-year-old grey mare played in the second chukker, returned to the barn with the Best Playing Pony Amateur blanket. “Luna was my first polo pony who I got when I was 13 years old,” Kennedy said. “Now four years later, I am so proud of her growth. She’s super handy and always gets me to where I need to be.”
Best Playing Pony Professional was awarded to 8-year-old grey gelding Natchez, played by Audry Persano in the second and fourth chukkers. Bred by A-F Pony Farm and owned by Steve Armour, Natchez was trained by Cody Woodfin.
Best Playing Pony Pro – Natchez, ridden by Audry Persano, presented by Liliana Crump and pictured with Cody Woodfin, Thomas Phelps and owner Steve Armour.
The final Best Playing Pony Award of the day was presented by the American Quarter Horse Association to an outstanding registered quarter horse polo pony. 12-year-old sorrel gelding Nancy’s Smarty (also known as Cash) received the special honor. Bred by A-F Pony Farm and trained by Cody Woodfin, Cash was played in the third chukker by owner Carol Farnsworth. “I bought Cash in 2014,” Farnsworth said, “and it took me a few years to mesh with him, but I knew if I kept with him he’d make me a better rider and player since he was so talented. Cody and I always commented that he’s a feisty red-head, but he continues to tolerate me and for that I am so thankful!”
Proving that age is no reflection on skill, Athena Malin felt confident in her team’s ability and their chances to win the final. “Being a young team, with an average age of 19, many people doubted us and thought we would not come out with a win in the final. Despite this fact, we went into the game with confidence – in ourselves, each other and our horses,” Malin said. “We had a slow start, but throughout we played “our” game, backing each other up and playing strong offense and defense. I had never played with Marissa Wells before this tournament, but we really seemed to compliment each other well. I’m so happy to have won the tournament and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to play with these ladies!”
All photos courtesy of ©Kaylee Wroe.HOUSTON POLO CLUB